George Herbert (1593-1633)
After all pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tired, body and mind,
With full cry of affections, quite astray;
I took up the next inn I could find.
There when I came, whom found I but my dear,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to Him, ready there
To be all passengers’ most sweet relief?
Oh Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is Thy right,
To man of all beasts be not Thou a stranger:
Furnish and deck my soul, that Thou mayst have
A better lodging, than a rack, or grave.
Image: Vintage Christmas Card
We are all familiar with the story of the Magi, or the Wise Men, journeying from the east following a star, and bearing gifts of gold for the newly born Christ child. T. S. Eliot’s version, however, slants the familiar story in a direction not usually considered though obviously a part of the backstory. Here is a poem about the actual journey from the east and the naturally occurring unpleasantnesses attendant in such circumstances at that point in history. It also is a poem, as the speaker says directly, about death as much as it is about life. In line 31, the climax of the difficult journey, the seeing and worshipping of the baby Jesus is recorded in colorless understatement: “Finding the place; it was (you may say)/ satisfactory.” Make of it what you will.
T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)
Journey Of The Magi
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.Then the camel men cursing and
And running away, and wanting their
liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the
lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns
And the villages dirty and charging high
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of
With a running stream and a water-mill
beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in
away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with
vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for
pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no imformation, and so
And arrived at evening, not a moment
Finding the place; it was (you may say)
All this was a long time ago, I
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had
seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different;
this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like
Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these
But no longer at ease here, in the old
With an alien people clutching their
I should be glad of another death.
Henry Vaughan (1621-95)
Peace? and to all the world? sure, One
And He the Prince of Peace, hath none.
He travels to be born, and then
Is born to travel more again.
Poor Galilee! thou canst not be
The place for His nativity.
His restless mother’s called away,
And not delivered till she pay.
A tax? ’tis so still! we can see
The church thrive in her misery;
And like her Head at Bethlem, rise
When she, oppressed with troubles, lies.
Rise? should all fall, we cannot be
In more extremities than He.
Great Type of passions! come what will,
Thy grief exceeds all copies still.
Thou cam’st from heaven to earth, that we
Might go from earth to heaven with Thee.
And though Thou foundest no welcome here,
Thou didst provide us mansions there.
A stable was Thy court, and when
Men turned to beasts, beasts would be men.
They were Thy courtiers, others none;
And their poor manger was Thy throne.
No swaddling silks Thy limbs did fold,
Though Thou couldst turn Thy rays to gold.
No rockers waited on Thy birth,
No cradles stirred, nor songs of mirth;
But her chaste lap and sacred breast
Which lodged Thee first did give Thee rest.
But stay: what light is that doth stream,
And drop here in a gilded beam?
It is Thy star runs page, and brings
Thy tributary Eastern kings.
Lord! grant some light to us, that we
May with them find the way to Thee.
Behold what mists eclipse the day:
How dark it is! shed down one ray
To guide us out of this sad night,
And say once more, “Let there be light.”
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So stick up ivy and the bays,
And then restore the heathen ways.
Green will remind you of the spring,
Though this great day denies the thing.
And mortifies the earth and all
But your wild revels, and loose hall.
Could you wear flowers, and roses strow
Blushing upon your breasts’ warm snow,
That very dress your lightness will
Rebuke, and wither at the ill.
The brightness of this day we owe
Not unto music, masque, nor show:
Nor gallant furniture, nor plate;
But to the manger’s mean estate.
His life while here, as well as birth,
Was but a check to pomp and mirth;
And all man’s greatness you may see
Condemned by His humility.
Then leave your open house and noise,
To welcome Him with holy joys,
And the poor shepherd’s watchfulness:
Whom light and hymns from heaven did bless.
What you abound with, cast abroad
To those that want, and ease your load.
Who empties thus, will bring more in;
But riot is both loss and sin.
Dress finely what comes not in sight,
And then you keep your Christmas right.
Sweet, harmless lives! (on whose holy leisure
Waits innocence and pleasure),
Whose leaders to those pastures, and clear springs,
Were patriarchs, saints, and kings,
How happened it that in the dead of night
You only saw true light,
While Palestine was fast asleep, and lay
Without one thought of day?
Was it because those first and blessed swains
Were pilgrims on those plains
When they received the promise, for which now
‘Twas there first shown to you?
‘Tis true, He loves that dust whereon they go
That serve Him here below,
And therefore might for memory of those
His love there first disclose;
But wretched Salem, once His love, must now
No voice, nor vision know,
Her stately piles with all their height and pride
Now languished and died,
And Bethlem’s humble cotes above them stepped
While all her seers slept;
Her cedar, fir, hewed stones and gold were all
Polluted through their fall,
And those once sacred mansions were now
Mere emptiness and show;
This made the angel call at reeds and thatch,
Yet where the shepherds watch,
And God’s own lodging (though He could not lack)
To be a common rack;
No costly pride, no soft-clothed luxury
In those thin cells could lie,
Each stirring wind and storm blew through their cots
Which never harbored plots,
Only content, and love, and humble joys
Lived there without all noise,
Perhaps some harmless cares for the next day
Did in their bosoms play,
As where to lead their sheep, what silent nook,
What springs or shades to look,
But that was all; and now with gladsome care
They for the town prepare,
They leave their flock, and in a busy talk
All towards Bethlem walk
To see their souls’ Great Shepherd, Who was come
To bring all stragglers home,
Where now they find Him out, and taught before
That Lamb of God adore,
That Lamb whose days great kings and prophets wished
And longed to see, but missed.
The first light they beheld was bright and gay
And turned their night to day,
But to this later light they saw in Him,
Their day was dark, and dim.
December 4, 2017
On This Date in 1795 Thomas Carlyle Was Born. He died February 5, 1881.
Here is a short clip from Past and Present.
The Irish Widow
A poor Irish Widow, her husband having died in the Lanes of Edinburgh, went forth with her three children, bare of all resource, to solicit help from the Charitable Establishments of that City. At this Charitable Establishment and then at that she was refused; referred from one to the other, helped by none; –till she had exhausted them all; till her strength and heart failed her; she sank down in typhus-fever; died, and infected her Lane with fever, so that “seventeen other persons” died of fever there in consequence. The humane Physician asks thereupon, as with a heart too full for speaking, Would it not have been economy to help this poor Widow? She took typhus-fever, and killed seventeen of you!—Very curious. The forlorn Irish Widow applies to her fellow-creatures, as if saying, “Behold I am sinking, bare of help: ye must help me!” They answer, “No, impossible; thou art no sister of ours.” But she proves her sisterhood; her typhus-fever kills them: they actually were her brothers, though denying it! Had human creature ever to go lower for a proof?
I usually feel Thomas Carlyle to be a windbag—try reading his Sartor Resartus which used to be required reading for English majors. But then you run across snippets of much longer passages such as this one usually given the editorial title above, taken from Past and Present (April 1843).
An Irish widow in Scotland—not a good situation to be in. She begs of everyone, even the appropriate social entities, for help. They ignore her. I mean, really, who is she and what have we to do with her, right? She dies, and her death demonstrates with deadly effect that she is indeed our sister and we are her brothers and sisters.
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Over the next four days I am posting four Christmas poems by Henry Vaughan the English Metaphysical poet. These four poems especially provide moments for contemplation during this Advent Season.
Henry Vaughan (1621-95)
Awake, glad heart! Get up and sing,
It is the birthday of thy King,
The sun doth shake
Light from his locks, and all the way
Breathing perfumes, doth spice the day.
Awake, awake! Hark, how the wood rings,
Winds whisper, and the busy springs
A consort make;
Man is their high-priest, and should rise
To offer up the sacrifice.
I would I were some bird or star,
Fluttering in woods, or lifted far
Above this inn
And road of sin!
Then either star, or bird, should be
Shining, or singing still to Thee.
I would I had in my best part
Fit rooms for Thee! Or that my heart
Were so clean as
Thy manger was!
But I am all filth, and obscene,
Yet if Thou wilt, Thou canst make clean.
Sweet Jesu! will then; Let no more
This leper haunt, and soil Thy door,
Curse him, ease him
O release him!
And let once more by mystic birth
The Lord of life be born in earth.
How kind is heaven to man! If here
One sinner doth amend
Straight there is joy, and every sphere
In music doth contend;
And shall we then no voices lift?
Are mercy, and salvation
Not worth our thanks? Is life a gift
Of no more acceptation?
Shall He that did come down from thence,
And here for us was slain,
Shall He be now cast off? No sense
Of all His woes remain?
Can neither Love, nor sufferings bind?
Are we all stone, and earth?
Neither His bloody passions mind,
Nor one day bless His birth?
Alas, my God! Thy birth now here
Must not be numbered in the year.
The last several days I have been posting some of the great Christmas poems from the English Metaphysical poets in The Literary Life. More are to come. The Metaphysical poets are usually thought of for their wild conceits, comparisons of one fairly ordinary concept to a wildly different concrete image. Often the imagery is grotesque. Here, for Christmas we have a poem in which the Savior contemplates his birth into the world as an infant suckling his mother’s breasts. See what you think?
Joseph Beaumont (1616-99)
Jesus inter Ubera Mariae
[Jesus between Mary’s Breasts]
In the coolness of the day,
The old world even, God all undressed went down
Without His robe, without His crown,
Into His private garden, there to lay
On spicy bed
His sweeter head.
There He found two beds of spice,
A double mount of lilies in whose top
Two milky fountains bubbled up.
He soon resolved: “And well I like!” He cries,
“My table spread
Upon my bed.”
Scarcely had He ‘gun to feed
When troops of cherubs hovered round about,
And on their golden wings they brought
All Eden’s flowers. But we cried out: “No need
Of flowers here!
Sweet spirits, forbear.”
“True, He needs no sweets,” say they;
“But sweets have need of Him, to keep them so;
Now paradise springs new with you,
Old Eden’s beauty all inclined this way;
And we are come
To bring them home.
“Paradise spring new with you,
Where ‘twixt those beds of lilies you may see
Of life the everlasting Tree.”
“Sweet is your reason,” then said we: “come strew
Your pious showers
Of eastern flowers.”
Winds awake! and with soft gale
Awake the odors of our garden too;
By which yourselves perfumed go
Through every quarter of your world, that all
Your sound may hear
And breathe your air.
Ben Jonson (1572-1637)
A Hymn on the Nativity of My Savior
I sing the birth was born tonight,
The Author both of life and light;
The angels so did sound it,
And like the ravished shepherds said,
Who saw the light, and were afraid,
Yet searched, and true they found it.
The Son of God, the eternal King,
That did us all salvation bring,
And freed the soul from danger;
He whom the whole world could not take,
The Word, which heaven and earth did make,
Was now laid in a manger.
The Father’s wisdom willed it so,
The Son’s obedience knew no “No,”
Both wills were in one stature;
And as that wisdom had decreed,
The Word was now made Flesh indeed,
And took on Him our nature.
What comfort by Him do we win?
Who made Himself the Prince of sin,
To make us heirs of glory?
To see this Babe, all innocence,
A Martyr born in our defense,
Can man forget this story?
By John Donne
Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He will wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son and Brother;
Whom thou conceivst, conceived; yea thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and shutst in little room,
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.
By John Donne
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov’d imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.